Waffle House shooting shows why all states need ‘red flag’ laws

The alleged shooter might not have had access to weapons if laws were uniform across states.

By now, most people know the details about the Waffle House mass shooting near Nashville, which killed four people. But still unresolved is the question about the legal status of the alleged shooter, Travis Reinking, possessing guns. That’s why every state needs to enact “red flag” laws.

State and local officials in Illinois revoked the firearms license and confiscated the guns belonging to Reinking after multiple arrests and bizarre behavior that suggested evidence of mental illness. He reportedly believed he was being stalked by pop star Taylor Swift; he went swimming at a public pool in his underwear, exposing his genitals; and he told officials in Washington that he had a right to inspect the White House grounds “because he was a sovereign citizen.”

Reinking’s guns were turned over to his father, Jeffrey Reinking, who does hold a valid firearms license, or FOID card (Firearm Owners Identification card). He promised officials that he would keep the guns away from Travis. But the elder Reinking returned the weapons to his son when the 29-year-old moved to Tennessee. One of those weapons was the AR-15 used in the Waffle House shooting.

Here’s where the legality of the gun transfer gets murky.

A federal official from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives said at a news conference that the weapons transfer was probably illegal under federal law and that Jeffrey Rein­king might be charged. But Tennessee officials suggested that Travis Reinking’s possession of guns, while illegal in Illinois, might have been legal in Tennessee. According to a story on NPR:

Laws are different state to state. And a restriction in one state doesn’t always translate to another — even if it was intended to.

Susan Niland, a spokeswoman with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said even though Reinking was forbidden to have guns in Illinois, it didn’t mean he couldn’t have them in Tennessee.

“It does not appear that there is anything in his record that would have been deniable from our end,” Niland said.

If every state had a red flag law, which allows police to confiscate guns from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others, and those laws were reciprocal from state to state, Travis Reinking’s possession of those weapons and his father’s transfer of those guns back to him would definitely be illegal. Everywhere.

Red flag laws have been enacted in only eight states, but nearly 20 more states and the District of Columbia are considering such legislation, and some bills are working their way through state legislatures. Since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people were killed, such laws are gaining bipartisan support. After the Parkland shooting, Florida became the sixth state to pass a red flag law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, another Republican, signed multiple gun restrictions into law on April 11, including a red flag law. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, also a Republican, signed a red flag law on April 23, along with other gun safety measures. In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, signed an executive order essentially establishing a red flag measure.

The laws are seen as successful in preventing gun violence, although most are too new to measure the effect. Connecticut was the first state to pass a red flag law, in 1999, and a 2016 study suggested that Connecticut’s law may have reduced the number of suicides in the state. California, Washington, Oregon, and Indiana have similar laws.

Here’s an explanation of how the laws work, from a story in USA Today:

Red-flag laws vary by state, but they generally allow law enforcement or family members to petition a judge for a “gun violence restraining order” or “extreme risk protection order” to temporarily restrict a person’s access to firearms.

The judge can issue an emergency, temporary order — without the gun owner being present —  to prevent immediate danger. But a full hearing must be scheduled quickly, offering the gun owner the ability to respond.

A longer order can be issued during the full hearing if there is enough evidence that the person is dangerous.

Unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Association has opposed red flag laws, although there is evidence that the gun lobby is changing its tune: Its top lobbyist, Chris Cox, released a YouTube video asking Congress to pass incentives for states to pass red flag laws. But the NRA-ILA, the group’s political arm (ILA stands for Institute for Legislative Action), still has web pages urging NRA members to contact state lawmakers to vote against any proposed bills. And although some members of Congress have made noises about red flag legislation, no one expects any movement from either the House or the Senate, especially in the current session.

Passage of red flag laws are a high priority for the antiviolence group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The group’s chapters across the country are making their presence felt in state capitals as lawmakers consider these new laws, attending hearings and legislative sessions.

To check on the status in your state, the affiliated antiviolence group Everytown for Gun Safety has a searchable, interactive Gun Law Navigator with complete, up-to-date information on the status of gun laws across the country. Another complete reference to gun laws nationwide is this guide available from The Washington Post, which is updated periodically.

Travis Reinking is reportedly not talking to authorities about any motive. He considered himself a “sovereign citizen” as part of the right-wing extremist movement and thus said he was not subject to U.S. law. Spoiler alert for Travis: You are.

Not much has been gleaned about the attitude of Travis Reinking’s parents about guns. His father, Jeffrey Reinking, isn’t commenting publicly (not a big surprise), but there are reports that he had taken away and returned his son’s guns three separate times. There are other clues, too: Travis’ mother, Judy Reinking, posted on Facebook that mass shootings only started after God and Jesus were removed from public school classrooms. A Chicago Tribune story described Travis Reinking this way: “He came from a Christian family and was home-schooled.” The story quoted neighbors saying, “They are a really good family.” (Once again: A white shooter is always a “troubled young man.”)

Illinois lawmakers are considering their own version of a red flag law, which would add more protection than current law. One provision being considered would let law enforcement officials keep confiscated weapons, rather than hand them over to a relative. This is similar to the way police can confiscate and keep property under civil forfeiture laws, in cases where assets might be used in criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Such confiscation is legal even when suspects aren’t convicted.

Now officials in Tazewell County, Illinois, which contains the Reinkings’ home in Morton, are reviewing whether to charge Jeffrey Reinking with a felony. So far, they’re noncommittal. According to a story in the Pantagraph in Bloomington, Illinois:

Transfers of weapons from one family member to another as a “bona fide gift” are exempt from a requirement under Illinois law that the owner first verify with state police that the recipient of the gun has a valid FOID card.

“At this point, our office does not possess enough information to determine if Jeffrey Reinking committed a criminal offense. When our office receives information from the criminal investigation, particularly from the FBI, we will be in a position to determine if any violation occurred,” Umholtz said.

“More information”? Seems pretty clear to me.

Red flag laws are not a panacea and are just one tool to cut down on gun violence. They join other common-sense gun law proposals that are gaining in public support, such as expanded universal background checks and bans on assault weapons, bump stocks, and high-capacity magazines. An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in April showed that 85 percent of those surveyed supported red flag laws.

Red-flag laws have the support of more than 8 in 10 Democrats, Republicans, and independents, including at least two-thirds who support them “strongly.” … Most Americans living in gun-owning households also back proposals for a red-flag law.

Travis Reinking has been charged with four counts of criminal homicide. Whether or not Jeffrey Reinking ever faces criminal charges for returning his son’s guns, one thing is sure: The family is likely to face one heck of a civil suit from the families of those killed and injured in the Waffle House mass shooting.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on April 29, 2018.

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